CSI Starside-Pirate Style


No, it’s not the title of a new crime series. It’s an experience I set up for my students as a way to hook, or get them excited about what we were studying. I love the book Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess and reading it has reignited my creative juices.  So, while we were learning about the brightness of stars and constellations I wanted a fun and engaging way to end the unit. Of course this idea hit me toward the end of the unit, so I had to rapidly pull it all together.

I set up my classroom as a crime scene with evidence that would lead to the identity of a fallen constellation.  I presented the students with a scenario and then gave them a crime scene evidence book in which they would record evidence and how it was significant to the investigation.  I found articles and videos that would assist with their research and loaded them on our class BlackboardLearn site.  I also provided paper copies as our technology is sometimes an issue (I’m sure many of you can relate.).  I also set up a bulletin board to keep track of the evidence as well as holding all of the information for the investigation. I was inspired by the murder board from one of my favorite TV shows, Castle.

csi board

Students then set off in groups to analyze the clues (these had tags) and research to discover what role each piece of evidence played in identifying the constellation.  They were so focused as they came up to the crime scene and discussed what the items were and what they thought they meant.  At first I think they were most excited by the presence of the caution tape and the telescope.  As three classrooms, over the course of several days, participated in the investigation I was impressed by the fact that no piece of evidence was disturbed.  Our crime scene was never once contaminated.  They valued the experience enough to respect it.


These are some of the clues students had to analyze.

At the end of the investigation I asked my students to provide me with feedback on the experience.  I told them to be polite, but not to be afraid to be very specific as to what they liked, what they were not that thrilled by, and what I could do to make it better if I did it again next year.  I was very pleased that they took this part seriously and that they provided me with very helpful feedback.  Read below for a taste of the feedback I received.

Student Feedback

  • Do the simulation at the beginning of the unit and make it last longer.
  • Make the clues harder so that it is more challenging.
  • Have many of the clues fit two or more constellations to make it more challenging.
  • Have more constellations to choose from.
  • Don’t provide paper copies so that more of the research is student driven.

I think I had as much fun creating this experience as they did working on it. So where do I go from here?  I’ll be taking the feedback my students gave me and tweak the experience for next year.  Since the other two teachers in my grade level used this investigation, I will  also be looking to them to help improve the experience for next year.

What this experience taught me is that sometimes the best ideas do come at the last minute, and after you thought you’d planned out the unit.  Don’t be afraid to change course and just go for it!  Giving your students the opportunity to critique the teacher’s work is empowering and makes them feel valued.  Besides, who knows better than your students what other students would want?

As I end this post, I’d like to share a quote from Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess.  This is what I need to constantly remember when designing my lessons so that I don’t get caught up so much in what I need to teach, but just as importantly to focus on how I teach.

“How can I make this lesson outrageously entertaining, engaging, and powerful so that my students will never forget it and will be desperate to come back for more?”–Dave Burgess, Teach Like a Pirate


Who Knew a Dictionary Could Bring So Much Joy?

I know what you’re thinking.  Who still uses an actual, physical dictionary?  After all, there are many good dictionaries readily available on the Internet and mobile devices.  I admit I use online and app dictionaries all the time.  Yet, there’s something about holding the physical book in your hands, perusing the guide words on each page, and the joy of discovering a word you’d never before come across.  Imagine my surprise when my tech-savvy fifth graders felt the same way.

Two weeks ago, tired of the same old spelling and vocabulary practice, I introduced my class to a game we call Dictionary Races.    Over twenty years ago, at the beginning of my teaching career, I used this game as a way to have my students practice alphabetical order and using guide words in a dictionary.  As a new teacher at the time, I’m pretty sure I found the idea in Mailbox Magazine, which at the time was my go to resource.  My students loved it then, and my fifth graders love it now.  So, once I “liberated” a few more dictionaries that I found not being used, we were ready to play.

To play, I partnered up students to share one dictionary. You could easily have students compete on their own, but I didn’t have enough dictionaries and they really enjoy partner games.  Then, I wrote a spelling word up on our whiteboard.  Students raced to locate the word.  Once located, the first team to find it read the definition and scored a point.  If we were using the same dictionaries, I would have the team locating the word first to also call out the page number.  Since we don’t have the same dictionaries, I make sure the winning team loudly reads the definition. We played until either time ran out, or we were out of words.  This could also be used to look up new content vocabulary as well.

My students were one hundred percent engaged with this activity.  No prep or worksheets involved.  I just needed a place to display each word and dictionaries.  There were groans when we ended the game for the day.  On the flip side, there were shouts of joy when I announced this week it was again time for Dictionary Races.  This time around more teams made the scoreboard. There was also more competition, and then bewilderment at how fast some teams could locate the word.

It’s amazing how something so simple as a race to find a word in a dictionary could spark so much excitement.  So, just remember that no matter how much we love our technology and want our students to be adept in using it, there’s still something to be said about going low-tech to create a sense of excitement in learning.





Collaboration, What Does It Mean To You?

Collaboration is the buzz word in my building and district right now.  On the surface it sounds like a great idea.  However, there is what I will refer to later as the dark side of collaboration.  First, let’s talk about what it means to me.  As you read, think about what it means to you.

Collaborate with people you can learn from.  Pharrell

To me, collaboration is working with and learning from others.  It’s where teachers come together to learn more about their craft, find solutions to help students, and work together to improve their school.  Collaboration is not restricted to co-teaching, your grade level team, building, or district.  Just this weekend I collaborated with a second grade teacher in my building to help with a math project she was working on. I will not be teaching this with her, rather I offered her ideas and feedback.  I’ve also collaborated with teachers on the internet through Twitter chats.

Team-A group of people with complimentary skills required to do complete a task, job, or project.–Businessdictionary.com

Collaboration works best for me when I work with people who have the same vision.  To be creative I need to be surrounded by other creative people.  These are not people who work exactly the same way as I do, or have the same strengths, they compliment me.

I really do appreciate people who stimulate my creativity and make me think on a deeper level.–Quote found on Pinterest

However, there is a dark side to collaboration.  Or at least, I see an unintended dark side.  That dark side is forced collaboration.  While we can’t all pick the teams we work on, and sometimes that is indeed a good thing, I don’t feel collaboration means that all teachers on the team are teaching the content in the exact same way.  If that happens to work for all individuals involved, then by all means go for it.  Collaboration on grade level teams to me is making sure we have a plan for the year, and then quarter by quarter. All of us would be teaching the same standards, and I’m even willing to use the same assessment. We share ideas and approaches with each other as the units are planned, but teacher creativity and the needs of the students in that classroom should always trump the need to do everything the same way.  We teach our students to be individuals and out-of-the box thinkers, but often teachers are asked or told to be the opposite.

Forced collaboration also hides teachers who quite frankly are just skating by.  If we’re all being honest here, we’ve probably worked with the teacher who really is just putting in their time, doesn’t or doesn’t care to try anything new, and is just a negative Nelly or Nelson. Yet, they are too happy to let you do all the work and then expect to copy it all.  Or, you have the teacher who you have a philosophical difference with, or who doesn’t require as much out of students as you do, but since they are more forceful, it looks like you aren’t the team player.  This isn’t fair to the team or to the students.  Please don’t flame me.  We’re being honest here and those teachers do exist.

I have been very fortunate to collaborate with many amazing teachers and administrators.  I have a school improvement specialist and principal that I am able to routinely bounce ideas off of.  There are teachers who I collaborate regularly with who are not in my grade level, and I appreciate their input so much.  I have an amazing group of teachers on Twitter that have helped me with technology, projects, and a new way of approaching things.  I co-teach with an incredibly knowledgeable and creative math teacher.  Finally, I have a grade level team to whom I can collaborate with, yet we all respect each other’s differences, interests, time constraints, and comfort levels. I’m sure how I view collaboration will continue to evolve as I evolve as an educator.  An excellent resource is www.teachingchannel.org where you can view videos and blogs to learn more about collaboration.

So, what can be done so that collaboration benefits our students and yes, the teachers?  Begin by building teams that want to be together, if possible.  Building needs and hiring practices will always take precedence, but think about it.  What if, over time, grade level teams were created where the teachers wanted to be together, shared the same vision for their grade level and even school, were not clones of one another, but complemented one another, trusted one another, and held the same level of standards for students?  I believe the results would be nothing short of amazing.  Students would benefit from high levels of accountability and highly engaging units of study.  They would see, modeled in teacher collaboration, what we are asking them to do in cooperative groups.  Collaboration should always have what’s best for our students at the forefront, but teacher growth needs to be taken into account as well.  Happy teachers lead to happy students.

I’ll leave you with a few questions and a quote.  What does collaboration look like in your building?  What does collaboration mean to you?

collaborate by Krissy.Venosdale, via Flickr


This year I’ve seen several posts, tweets, and had fellow teachers talk about the one word that defines who they are, or just simply describes them at a particular moment.  I guess there’s a book they’ve been reading that by the end of reading it, your one word should just come to you.  Most of the words I’ve read make the person seem like the most selfless, giving person that you’ll ever meet.  And hey, if that’s who they really are then that is great.  However, those are not the kinds of words that came to me. And I’m okay with that.

By the title of this post you can easily figure out what word that came to me.  Unapologetic.  At first glance, you might think the word has selfish, negative connotations.  But, it doesn’t have to be.  Here’s a quote I found on Pinterest that I really love.

“Do your thing. Do it unapologetically.  Don’t be discouraged by criticism.  You probably already know what they’re going to say.  Pay no mind to the fear of failure.  It’s far more valuable than success.  Take ownership, take chances, and have fun.  And no matter what, don’t ever stop doing your thing.”  Asher Roth

Here are the ways I am, or will be, unapologetic.  With the exception of numbers one and ten, they are in no particular order.


  1. I will not apologize for being a teacher who deserves a fair living wage and teaching conditions.  (State of Kansas I am talking to you on this one.)
  2. I will not apologize for advocating for all of my students.
  3. I will not apologize for standing up and speaking up for colleagues who have not yet found their voice.
  4. I will not apologize for teaching in a style that is unconventional if it will further the learning and love of learning in my students.
  5. I will not apologize for winning an award.
  6. I will not apologize for going against the grain.
  7. I will not apologize for using paper, pencil, and hands-on learning in this age of technology.
  8. I will not apologize for using technology in my lessons or professional life. (Yes, I know it seems at odds with number 7, but you need both, not necessarily one over the other.)
  9. I will not apologize when I put my own or my family’s needs above my school life.  I am not a martyr, I’m a teacher.
  10. Again, and this is necessary to repeat in my state, I will not apologize for being a teacher.

Being unapologetic does not mean that I am, or will be rude.  It does not mean that I do not or will not apologize when I have been wrong or have hurt someone’s feelings.  It simply means that I won’t stand by quietly while my students, colleagues, or profession are being mistreated or treated unfairly.

What is the one word, or even phrase, that describes you as a teacher?  What will you not apologize for as a teacher?